When Sandra Brockley’s husband Charlie was diagnosed with dementia, they both found comfort and support in attending dementia support groups in their home town of Rotherham. Charlie sadly passed away in 2017, but rather than giving up the groups, Sandra continues to attend to support others who are living with dementia.
Sandra, 75, is one of a group of 19 volunteers aged between 68 and 90 who have clocked up thousands of hours between them at Rotherham dementia cafes. All have had experience of caring for a loved one with dementia themselves.
In March, the volunteers were named nationwide unpaid carers of the year at the Great British Care Awards, beating off competition from eight other regional finalists. They were presented with their award during a gala dinner attended by over a thousand people at Birmingham’s ICC, after being nominated by national adult health and social care charity Making Space.
Sandra is no stranger to volunteering – or to accolades. In 2006, she was awarded an MBE for her community work and fundraising activities, having lost her daughter Lorraine aged just 19 to cervical cancer.
“Lorraine set up a fund to help raise money for treatments that weren’t available on the NHS,” explains Sandra. “She made me and her dad promise to carry on with it, and I’ve now raised over £1 million for different causes, including dementia.”
When Charlie was diagnosed with dementia, Sandra initially struggled to convince him to go along to one of the cafes. “He didn’t see the point,” she says. “So I left it a while then asked him again, and his response was, ‘OK, what should I wear?’” After that, we went to a café every week for five years.”
And, once there, the couple didn’t just enjoy the social aspect of the cafes. They threw themselves into raising money for dementia-related causes.
For Sandra and the other volunteers, the cafes are an opportunity to pass on their experience to help others who are living with dementia, including their carers and families.
“It’s a little bit of respite – the carers know that we’ve all been through the same experience, so we can spend time with the person with dementia and give the carers and families the opportunity to chat and support each other.
“Each session last two hours, and I currently attend one every week in different parts of Rotherham. We greet people, take them to a table, ask them if they want to do an activity and just give them a safe space to relax and enjoy the company of others in a similar position.”
And, as well as helping those currently living with dementia, the volunteers support each other.
“They are my family,” says Sandra. “When I lost my husband it took me a while to get moving again, mentally and physically. I’d been so used to guiding him around I physically struggled to walk on my own. I knew I had to get myself right, and I thought there’s no point sitting there crying, you just have to get up and get going again.
“That’s when you need support the most – when you’ve lost your loved one. We’re all there for each other, we help each other through the hard times. We even go on holiday together – although that’s getting difficult now we’re getting older.
“The whole experience is rewarding. If I can put a smile on someone’s face – whether it’s group members or my fellow volunteers – it makes my day. That’s why I have no plans to give up and will carry on as long as I can.”